January 23, 2015

#11 Did Errol Morris' Brother Invent Email?

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

There was a lot that Errol Morris never knew about his brilliant, distant older brother Noel. Decades after Noel's death, Errol read an internet comment that said his brother had invented email. So he launched an investigation to find out if it was true. 

The Facts:
Our theme song and episode music is by 

Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings

Further Reading:
Errol Morris' 

several part exploration of his brother's place in the history of email. Some postings that Errol Morris found on the internet eulogizing his brother. Tom Van Vleck's "History of Electronic Mail." 



PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. And I’m PJ Vogt. Errol Morris makes movies, but before he made movies he was a private eye. And he’s still got the obsessiveness of a good detective, which means that when he writes something online, he breaks one of the most bedrock rules of using the internet.

PJ: Do You always read all of the comments on your pieces?

ERROL MORRIS: I try to read a lot of them. I can’t guarantee I read all of them. Sometimes there’s a lot of comments. But usually I read them for negative stuff. Who wants to read positive stuff.

PJ: A few years ago, Errol published an essay about a professor he’d once had who threw an ashtray at his head. It was 21,981 words. Again, Errol’s an obsessive. And as an obsessive, once the piece was written, he decided to wade deep into the comments section, where he found something new to obsess over.

ERROL: Comment 82, I can read it to you if you like.

PJ: Yes please.

ERROL: I had email today from another middle school student about Noel Morris’s place in history as a creator of electronic mail.

PJ: That was the whole comment. But it caught his eye because of that name. Noel Morris. Noel was Errol Morris’s older brother. He’d died 28 years earlier. While he was alive, he never said anything to Errol about inventing email, which seems like the kind of thing you’d mention.

ERROL: It’s such a large claim. It’s like saying, “Well, my brother was the first man on the moon. Yeah sure. Sure, he was the first man on the moon. Sure, he invented email.

PJ: This wasn’t actually the first time Errol had heard the your-brother-invented-email-but-he-never-told-you-about-it rumor. There’d been whispers about it after Noel’s death. But there were a lot of things about his brother that Errol hadn’t known or hadn’t been aware of. Since they were kids, Errol had admired his brother but from a distance.

ERROL: I looked up to him.

PJ: What was he like?

ERROL: Now the convenient expression I suppose is Aspergers, an element of Aspergers, a little bit removed. He was always building things: mechanical contraptions, electronic gear of one kind or another. He created this device which he called the Morrismatic Door, which was a system of ropes and pulleys that he could open and close the door from his bed. I often felt stupid around him. We had a telescope. I remember him being in the backyard with a friend of his, who later became an astrophysicist, looking at some celestial object. And we couldn’t get a good view of it and I suggested moving the telescope across to the other side of the yard and they started laughing at me. Because clearly I did not understand the enormous distances involved and how that wasn’t really going to very help much of anything

PJ: How old were you?

ERROL: I was probably 5. I don’t know

PJ: Seems like a reasonable thing not to know. [Laughs]

PJ: OK, so maybe this wasn’t a huge surprise, but the precocious kid who grew up in Massachusetts, built elaborate mechanical inventions, and loved telescopes, eventually left home and went to MIT. He studied there and later he worked there. He had a job programming early computers. Errol went to visit him one summer in Cambridge.  Visiting Noel was strange. It was like visiting the future.

ERROL: People did not have computers in their houses or their apartments. That’s unheard of. But my brother had a console in his apartment, which was installed so he could work essentially 24 hours a day and then some. I just remember so well him at the console working. I understood very, very little about it other than that he was highly respected. People went to him if they couldn’t debug a program, my brother was always there.

PJ: With an older brother like that, it actually did seem completely possible that he could’ve invented email and never bothered to explain it to his family. Fortunately, comment 82 had been signed, by a guy named Tom Van Vleck.

[Phone ringing]


ERROL: Hello, I’m trying to find Tom Van Vleck.

TOM: Speaking.

ERROL: It’s Errol Morris.

TOM: Well, hello, Errol how are you?

ERROL: I’m fine. I dimly remember from years and years and years ago.

PJ: Tom had actually worked with Noel back at MIT.

ERROL: I was just surprised to see that comment in the New York Times.

TOM: Mhm. It was sort of bait, you know. I was wondering if you would respond.

PJ: Tom and Noel had been close friends, worked together for years. The two of them had often shared one terminal, which meant that one person would be sitting and typing, while the other stood over them yelling corrections. What Errol wanted to find out from his brother’s old work partner wasn’t just if the two of them had created email but also who Noel had been. By Errol’s account, growing up in the Morris household meant being surrounded by smarts and sadness. The two brothers were raised by their mother, a brilliant musician with a doctorate in French literature who supported their entire family after their father died of a heart attack.

ERROL: My father died in December of 1950. Although I have no memory of him, no memory of that day, close friends of the family remember me running up and down the stairs of the house, screaming.My brother was nine years old. His relationship with my father, from what I understand, was a very, very difficult one. I don't know. There's a lot of mysteries about my brother that probably I can never answer.

PJ: Because he was stuck with these mysteries, Errol tried to come up with theories about who his brother really was. One of the central ones was that Noel was a socially isolated person. Errol held that idea in his head up until Noel’s death. Like his father, Noel died from a heart attack, and also like his father, he died while he was still pretty young. He was only 40. It was 1983.

ERROL: I knew my brother had friends, but how many friends. I wondered whether anyone would come to the funeral. That day, that chapel, it was packed. There were hundreds upon hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people--almost all from MIT. I remember then feeling that maybe I just didn't really understand who my brother was, or the things that he was able to achieve.

PJ: How many people had you expected would be there?

ERROL: I don't know, maybe a handful. There could’ve been close to a thousand people.

PJ: How do you think they heard? Like how do you think they wound up there?

ERROL: You know … computers.

PJ: Really?

ERROL: Of course

PJ: What do you mean?

ERROL: These people were all connected. They were the first people to be connected.

PJ: After the break, Errol Morris--with help from Tom Van Vleck--goes back into the past and tries to figure out who was his brother was. Oh, and also, did he actually help create email.


PJ: So after Errol called Tom about Tom’s internet comment, the two of them got in a long conversation. And then Errol did what he does best. He got obsessed. He started investigating. He devoured Tom Van Vleck’s comprehensive website on computing in the 1960’s. He talked to everybody he could find who was working at Tom and Noel lab’s and who was still alive. And he went to MIT, where he was allowed to see the actual paper archives from  his brother’s old lab.

ERROL: The librarian had me fill out various slips and they come back with cardboard boxes. I open them up and there’s a hodgepodge of stuff. These documents do not look as if they were created to be preserved. They just happen to be preserved. Some of them are coffee-stained. And so they’re all these outlines of various lectures that had been given, formal and informal. There are programs--lots and lots of pieces of programs

PJ: So here’s the story that emerged from Errol’s search. In 1965, Tom and Noel worked for Project MAC, which was a computing project at MIT. They were helping to program a new operating system. There was a memo from on high with a bunch of suggestions for features that the new operating system could have. And mail was one of those features. But Tom said that that idea just sat there in the memo--nobody actually wanted to try to implement it.

TOM: When Noel and I ran across the memo, we went to people and said, "Hey, this is great! How come it doesn't work?" And they said, “Oh, we never wrote that. There’s no time, and nobody knows how to do it anyway.” Because of long technical explanation. OK? And we said, "Well, gee, could we write it?"

PJ: Their bosses actually told them not to, they said it was a waste of time, but Tom and Noel did it anyway. Tom says their program was only around a hundred lines of code. It was just a way for multiple people who were sharing one terminal to leave messages for each other on that terminal. If Noel pulled an allnighter and finished programming at four o’clock in the morning, he could use their MAIL program to tell Tom what he’d spent that time doing, so Tom could pick up the work. It was like leaving an electronic post-it note.

TOM: People often ask what was the first email message that you sent?

ERROL: Of course! It’s like Alexander ...

TOM: Well, I truly can’t remember. I used to send scraps of poetry and stuff like that and Noel kind of would grump at me, saying it wasn’t, you know, wasn’t computer enough.

PJ: There’s a very robust online debate about when exactly email gets invented. After Noel and Tom did their thing, another MIT alum named Ray Tomlinson figured out how to actually send electronic mail between two separate computers. But what Noel and Tom would say is that what they did was still electronic mail. And what I would add is that they figured out something their bosses hadn’t, which was that people were going to use computers to talk to other people, rather than just to crunch numbers. Back in the MIT archives, Errol didn’t find a smoking gun. There wasn’t, say, a certificate that said, “Hey Noel Morris, nice job indisputably creating electronic email with your friend Tom Van Vleck today.” But what Errol did find were actual printouts that his brother had made, of computer programs that he’d worked on.

ERROL: I mean that’s an odd kind of feeling. You’re sitting there in a room with my brothers handwriting, which I know so very, very, very well. It’s just strange. I don’t know how best to describe it. But in any kind of investigation, there’s a moment where you feel connected with the past, whether it’s through a photograph or a document. Somehow the past becomes alive.

PJ: Did your brother invent email?

ERROL: I believe that my brother and Tom Van Vleck sent the first electronic messages through a computer. If that’s email, well, yes! I didn’t investigate the story of my brother and email because I expected that I was going to find out he invented email or that he didn’t invent email. I just wanted to go back into the past.

PJ: Even the people we’re closest to are mysteries to us when they’re alive. You come up with your theories about who they are and you base them off the things that they do. But then they just spend their lives doing things that confound everything you think you know about them. And when they die, they get even murkier. Like those sneakers that she always wore -- were they really red, or were they orange? What was that French movie she was always trying to make everybody watch?

PJ: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about him going back like this?

ERROL: Maybe it’s a kind of relief. He really was there. It’s not all a dream. There was a world out there. People programmed things. My brother programmed things. He debugged programs and there they are. There they are sitting in a box. But there they are. You know the feeling of, “Wow, way to go Noel.”


PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Chris Neary and Lina Misitzis and edited by Alex Blumberg. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. And our show was mixed by Rick Kwan. Matt Lieber is a blizzard that actually shows up. Special thanks this week to Rachel Marcus, Mooj Zadie and Lizzie Vogt.